10/24/13: This week, the union requested assistance from a mediator at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service (FMCS) concerning the SEC’s plan to substantially increase surveillance of SEC employees. The SEC plans to activate “egress pads” at all Regional Offices which will require SEC employees to “card out” whenever they exit the building. This egress pad system will collect exit data, in effect creating a “time clock” system at the SEC. The union and SEC management have a fundamental disagreement over the use of this data to discipline employees for alleged “time and attendance” violations, and require a mediator to assist in resolving the impasse.
The “Time Clock” Issue at the SEC
For many years, the SEC did not closely monitor employee comings and goings, opting instead to foster a professional culture based upon mutual trust and respect, rather than emphasizing a “factory floor” mindset. Employees were judged based upon the quality and quantity of their work product. This approach, which is similar to the culture of the law firms and accounting firms from which most SEC employees have come to the SEC, was good for esprit de corps. Ten years ago, SEC management even entered into a contract with the union which provided that the use of access cards to “card in” and “card out” at Station Place turnstiles would not “serve as a basis for monitoring time and attendance” of SEC employees in Washington.
In the past couple of years, however, the “time clock” issue at Headquarters has grown into a festering problem. Newer employees in the Office of Human Resources (OHR) commenced the regular practice of pulling turnstile access card records to build discipline cases against employees. These OHR officials have taken the position that investigating a particular employee’s turnstile records for discipline purposes does not constitute using those records for “time and attendance,” and thus it is permissible under the agreement with the union.
This new approach has resulted in a larger number of high stakes discipline cases against SEC employees in Washington, including cases against attorneys, accountants and examiners. In the typical case, OHR disciplinarians pour over the turnstile records of an unsuspecting employee for an extended period of time from several months to a year. Each and every instance that the employee may have carded in a few minutes late, or carded out a few minutes early, is added up. Lunches that lasted longer than thirty minutes, as well as quick trips to purchase a cup of coffee, are all included in the final tally. Time that the employee donated to the agency, however, such as by staying to work late in the evening or coming into the office on a weekend, are not subtracted from the total. Nor is time spent responding to Blackberry messages or working on matters outside the SEC.
Utilizing these methods, OHR has generally been able in most cases to allege that the employee was “Absent Without Leave” for several hours over an extended period of from several months to a year. The “AWOL” charge is then written up, with a proposal to discipline the employee through removal from his or her job, or at least a suspension without pay for several days. The union has defended a number of employees in these types of cases in the past couple of years.
Extension of the Issue to the Regional Offices
Despite OHR’s new appetite to remove employees for AWOL charges based upon access card data in DC, the SEC nevertheless is currently claiming that its latest push to activate egress pads in all the Regional Offices is for purposes of “safety and security,” and not to monitor time and attendance for discipline purposes. This explanation is at odds with the facts.
In early 2010, the SEC’s erstwhile Inspector General, David Kotz, issued a report outlining the Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) investigation of two senior managers in a Regional Office who were allegedly AWOL over an extended period of time. During that investigation, the OIG discovered that almost all of the SEC’s Regional Offices do not have systems in place to identify when employees exit the building:
The lack of access card readers such as the ones used at SEC Headquarters, or other similar devices that would capture such information, reveals that SEC employees may enter and exit the premises of most Regional Offices without such information being recorded. As a result, the SEC has no way of investigating allegations concerning time and attendance abuse in the Regional Offices. Such information has been instrumental to the agency in similar cases investigated by the OIG at Headquarters.
In the report, Kotz recommended that egress pads be installed in all Regional Offices, “so that allegations of time and attendance abuse or other law enforcement concerns may be adequately investigated and addressed.”
SEC senior management’s current push to activate egress pads in the regions is to satisfy this discipline recommendation in the 2010 OIG report, and not for “safety” reasons. Indeed, it was shortly after that report in 2010 that the SEC first approached the union to negotiate over its egress pad proposal. Furthermore, the former head of the Security Branch at the SEC candidly told senior union officials that egress pads are not needed for “security.” It is essential to security that doors must be unlocked to enter SEC facilities, not to leave them. And, in an emergency situation such as a fire, employees would never be expected to “key out” individually, as that would imperil employees’ lives. This was demonstrated recently when Headquarters had to be evacuated due to an emergency situation--the long lines of employees waiting to "card out" was clearly a dangerous situation, which ultimately led the guards to simply throw open the turnstiles.
The Parties’ Proposals
The union has proposed to allow egress pad activation, but solely for “security” purposes. The data, both from the egress pads and from the DC turnstiles, would be deleted every few weeks, and the SEC would agree not to use that data for surveillance, discipline or performance purposes. The SEC negotiators insist upon continuing to regularly use the data to discipline employees.
Since the parties have been unable to agree on this issue, the union has requested formal mediation at the FMCS.
How to Protect Yourself
Until this dispute is resolved, SEC employees need to understand that they can be disciplined for AWOL and that, in many cases, this means removal from their jobs. OHR is very serious about this issue.
Despite the fact that most SEC employees are often told that they may take an hour for lunch, technically, we are only entitled to thirty minutes for lunch. If an employee regularly takes more time than thirty minutes, this time can be used against him or her in a disciplinary proceeding.
Likewise, OHR subscribes to the view that anytime an employee is outside the turnstiles or doors, he or she is AWOL. Be careful not to take a walk to get coffee, even with your supervisor. A case may be built very easily based upon these types of behaviors. The union has defended them.
Do not fall into the trap of believing that because you are a “professional” the rules do not apply to you. If you are an attorney and you work until midnight on a TRO, this does not mean that you can come into the office thirty minutes late the next morning. If OHR officials start making a case against you, they will typically ignore all time that you have donated to the agency.
“It is extremely disheartening to see these types of discipline cases happening at an agency like the SEC,” NYRO attorney James Hanson, who is on the egress pad union bargaining team, said this afternoon. “We are professionals who take our jobs very seriously and work hard to achieve the agency's goals,” he added. “It is unfortunate that a handful of people can do so much permanent damage to our culture by effectively turning us into a punch clock organization -- particularly at a time when employee morale is already at an all-time low.”